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Inside the Social Brain: Theory, Development, Cognitive and Brain Mechanisms.

Saturday, October 01st,   2011 [14:20 - 16:00]

SY_20. Inside the Social Brain: Developmental, Linguistic, Cognitive and Brain Mechanisms

Cross, E. 1, 2 & Bekkering, H. 3, 2

1 Behavioural Science Institute
2 Radboud University Nijmegen
3 Donders Centre for Cognition

Humans are uniquely social creatures, living within communities characterized by complex social hierarchies and a rich network of interpersonal bonds. How we process information conveyed by the people and groups with whom we interact has interested anthropologists, sociologists, linguisits and psychologists for decades. More recently, advances in neuroimaging have enabled scientists to capture a glimpse of the neural underpinnings that support aspects of social information processing. Research into the social brain is thus progressing rapidly as scientists find new and innovative ways to combine methodological approaches and theoretical perspectives to investigate how we perceive and perform in a social world. The aim of this symposium is to present a timely overview of four prominent research domains investigating the social brain. By considering developmental, linguistic, cognitive, and neural viewpoints, this symposium will offer a balanced and updated perspective on the behavioural and brain bases of social information processing.



SY_20.1 - The developing social brain: Neuro-cognitive mechanisms underlying children's processing of others' actions

Bekkering, H. 1, 2

1 Donders Centre for Cognition
2 Radboud University Nijmegen

Humans learn a lot via social interactions and are often referred to as Homo Imitans. In this talk, I will present some recent neurocognitive findings, including eye-gaze and EEG-signals, that shine new light on the underlying neurocognitive mechanisms of processing others' actions during the first years of life. In particular, this talk will focus on the activation of the observer’s own motor system during the observation of others’ actions when either observing the action, imitating the action, or acting together within a joint task setting.

SY_20.2 - Communicating actions: more on the neural link between language and action

Rueschemeyer, S.

University of York, UK

Language is a universal, pervasive and powerful tool for human social interaction. Therefore, a full-fledged understanding of the social brain must address the question of how language transports meaning between interlocutors. Recent studies have argued that understanding words results in activation of neural pathways involved in real-world experience with words’ referents; thereby transforming abstract symbols (i.e., words) into concrete information (e.g., perceptual/action experience). However, as I will demonstrate in this talk, word comprehension activates perceptual and motor areas in a flexible and dynamic manner, which reflects the overall propositional content of an utterance, rather than the meaning of individual lexical items. The flexibility with which neural motor areas are activated by language is intuitive when thinking about language as a flexible and communicative system; however it opens questions about whether embodiment really reflects anything about the architecture of the mental lexicon.

SY_20.3 - Control of shared representations and understanding other people’s minds

Brass, M.

Department of Experimental Psychology, Ghent University, Belgium

There is converging evidence that the observation of an action activates a corresponding motor representation in the observer. It has been argued that such ‘shared representations’ of perception and action are crucial for action understanding and mentalizing. Research on shared representations, however, has widely neglected the fundamental role of self-other distinction when simulating motor events and mental states. I will provide brain imaging evidence demonstrating that mentalizing and self-other distinction activate common brain circuits. Furthermore, I will present recent data relating deficits in the control of shared representations to autism spectrum condition. In summary, our research suggests a strong functional link between the control of shared representations and our ability to understand other people’s minds.

SY_20.4 - Brain mechanisms for social interaction

Ramsey, R.

Université catholique de Louvain

Numerous brain regions have been implicated in “understanding” other people’s actions, which has led to a vibrant debate in cognitive neuroscience. I suggest that this debate can be informed by placing more emphasis on a key function of the human brain: motor control. Whether attracting a friend’s attention, shaking hands or ordering a drink, movement is our vehicle for social interaction. Thus, we interact with other people through moving our bodies. In this light, I suggest it can be helpful to view neural sensitivity to other people’s observed actions within a framework of controlling how we interact with the world. To support this claim, I review recent brain imaging studies of action perception, social attention, inferential reasoning and mimicry.

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